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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.


WHITAKER, Sir Frederick


Premier, lawyer, and financier.

A new biography of Whitaker, Frederick appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Frederick Whitaker was born at the Manor House, Bampton, Oxfordshire, on 23 April 1812, the son of Frederick Whitaker, a deputy-lieutenant of the county. He was educated for the law, and in 1839 was admitted solicitor and attorney. In that year he left England for Sydney. Before starting to practise law in Kororareka in 1840, he travelled on both sides of the Tasman. A year later he left, when the seat of government was transferred to Auckland; the following year he became a Judge in a county Court; and from 1845–46 he sat as an unofficial member on Governor FitzRoy's Legislative Council. In 1843 he married Jane Augusta, a stepdaughter of Alexander Shepherd and, by her, he had four sons and four daughters. He served as a major in the militia in 1845 and 1846; spent two years in England thereafter; and in 1852 was elected to the never-convened Legislative Council of New Ulster.

By the early 1850s it had become clear that politics, law, and finance were to characterise his career. Already, in the 1840s, he had engaged upon an unsuccessful copper-mining venture; in 1853 he became Auckland Provincial Solicitor and a member of the Provincial Executive, and sat on the Provincial Council from 1854 to 1855; in 1853 he was nominated to the Legislative Council of the General Assembly, and a year later became Attorney-General – his favourite ministerial post – in the mixed official elective Executive Council. His influence upon Auckland's first Superintendent, R. H. Wynyard, was considerable; in 1855 and 1856 he stood in vain for that office himself.

From this time on he was seldom out of public life and frequently held high office. He was a member of the Legislative Council from 1853 to 1864 and Speaker in 1855 and 1856; Superintendent of Auckland from 1865 to 1867; a member of the House of Representatives in 1866 and 1867 and again from 1876 to 1879; and, once more, a member of the Council from 1879 to his death in 1891. He was out of public life for only one lengthy period: between his resignation both from the superintendency and from the House in 1867 to his re-election to the House in 1876.

His ministerial career effectively began as Attorney-General in Sewell's brief 1856 Administration. He held the same post for the whole of the Stafford Administration (1856–61) and again (though not as a Cabinet Minister) during the later part of the Domett Ministry in 1863. In 1863 and 1864 he was both Premier and Attorney-General. He served under H. A. Atkinson as Attorney-General in 1876 and 1877 (and briefly as Postmaster-General and Commissioner of Telegraphs in 1876); in the same office under John Hall from 1879 to 1882, and was once more Premier and Attorney-General from 1882 to 1883. Finally, he was again Atkinson's Attorney-General from 1887 to 1891. In 1884 he was created K.C.M.G.

He was a man to be reckoned with over the whole of his lengthy career, whether in office or not. W. Gisborne described him (in 1886) as “probably the most remarkable public man in New Zealand” and dwelt upon his partiality for directing affairs from comparative obscurity. He was pertinacious, intelligent, and extremely industrious; he found it easy to dominate more indolent and less single-minded men, notably Alfred Domett and William Fox, in the early 1860s. It was then that he exercised most influence upon New Zealand affairs and met more than his match in obstinacy, Sir George Grey, during the latter's second governorship.

In 1861 he entered a legal partnership with Thomas Russell, the founder of the Bank of New Zealand, also of Auckland. Both were prominent in that coterie of Auckland politicians, land speculators, and entrepreneurs who saw, in the Maori troubles of the 1860s, a golden opportunity for personal fortune and provincial prosperity. Much of their effort was directed to separating the Maori from his land and to subsequent profitable land dealings. The epitome of Whitaker's career offered by the New Zealand Herald (5 December 1891) upon his death – “a colonist, a lawyer, a mining and land speculator, a member of the Provincial and Colonial Legislatures, and Premier of the colony” – is wholly apt and the items are thoroughly interdependent.

In 1862 Whitaker supported the Runanga policy in the hope that it would ease land alienation; in the following year he advanced a complex policy to achieve this end by force. He and Russell had already dominated Domett; in 1863 he, as Premier, and Russell, as Defence Minister, easily converted the Native Minister, Fox, to their belligerent policy. His Cabinet was in essence the spearhead of the Auckland pro-war party. Full ministerial responsibility for native affairs was accepted, in an effort to neutralise the Governor, Grey, and three crucial Acts followed. The Suppression of Rebellion Act suspended habeas corpus and introduced martial law into disturbed districts; the New Zealand Settlements Act provided for the punitive confiscation of rebel natives' land (some 4¼ million acres were at first envisaged); while the Loan Act (which, because it conflicted with an Imperial Act, ought to have been reserved, but in fact received Grey's assent) authorised a loan of £3 million to develop this extensive domain. The measures passed easily over the protests of a few, led by Sewell and FitzGerald, and there was jubilation in Auckland.

This policy led to a crippling quarrel with Grey after the defeat of the “kingites” in 1863. The treatment of prisoners, punitive military measures, and the extension of the war showed the Whitaker Ministry's determination to crush rebellion with exemplary ruthlessness; they were further determined to seal submission with massive land confiscation. Grey, also committed to confiscation, insisted on limiting punishment to actual rebels; Whitaker took the financial necessity of government as his measuring stick, refused to demarcate precisely the area of land to be taken, and, driven to exasperation, defined a rebel as any native whose land it was proposed to confiscate. Grey, backed by the Colonial Office, was able to frustrate the Ministry, and Whitaker, faced with the failure of policy and the bankruptcy of government – the loan had failed in England – resigned.

Much of Grey's hostility stemmed from his conviction that Whitaker and Russell, deep themselves in land speculation, were selfishly motivated. The hostility persisted; in 1876 Grey, by this time a member of Parliament, attacked the Government for its favourable terms of sale of the Piako Swamp and Tawera Blocks to Whitaker, Russell, and their associates.

Frustrated in the General Government, Whitaker turned to his province. In 1865 he was elected unopposed as Superintendent, on a bitterly anti-southern policy (the seat of government had recently been removed to Wellington) and pledged to restore prosperity to Auckland. Whitaker made separation his goal – separate status for Auckland under a Lieutenant-Governor. Significantly enough, he criticised the recently defeated Weld Ministry for risking the withdrawal of Imperial troops with its rash talk of self-reliance. He re-entered the House in 1866 to urge both separation and the “colonialisation” of the provincial land funds. Successful in neither, he resigned both positions in 1867 and turned to private affairs.

His subsequent career is rather less intensive. At the end of his second premiership (1882–83) he emerged as a strenuous advocate of British annexation in the Pacific area, protesting to London against French and German expansion. In 1884 he and Atkinson, now premier, attended the Intercolonial Convention at Sydney, at which he framed the resolution strongly deploring the growth of foreign influence in the Pacific. On his return he became an enthusiast for “federation and annexation” – that is, a Federal Council for Australasia to take an initiative in the Pacific which the British Government would not assert.

Once again Whitaker's advocacy was not unconnected with his personal interests and with the commercial well-being of Auckland, a city which dreamed of becoming the great South Pacific entrepót. As Superintendent he had taken an official interest in the Fiji trade. In 1874 he and Julius Vogel had planned a semi-public “New Zealand and Polynesian Company”, a State-supported enterprise to act as the agent of a New Zealand advance in the Pacific. The Bill authorising the company was withdrawn, partly because of Colonial Office opposition, but Whitaker's personal involvement in Pacific commerce continued. Among his many commercial interests (they included land, mining, insurance, mortgage finance, gas, banking) was the New Zealand Sugar Co., which imported the most valuable island commodity into New Zealand. He was also managing director of the Fiji Banking and Commercial Co., a subsidiary of the Bank of New Zealand.

A full investigation of Whitaker's career would doubtless reveal many interconnections between business and politics in nineteenth-century New Zealand. He is an epitome of the colonial merchant prince, a man of many enterprises and considerable fortune. As a politician he was efficient rather than popular; as a leader always the target of suspicion and hostility. A close acquaintance, Francis Dillon Bell, commented in 1881: “I have often thought in a life-long intimacy with him how odd it was that a cynicism so complete as his should be so good-natured and chirpy”. But this cynicism did not preclude a certain political liberalism. He proposed, in 1878, manhood suffrage, proportional representation, and periodic redistribution of seats, and twice, in the 1880s, suggested an elective Upper House. Nor, in spite of his extensive operations, did he die a rich man. The depression of the later 1880s almost ruined him and the law was again his major support. He died on 4 December 1891 in straitened circumstances.

by William Hosking Oliver, M.A.(N.Z.), D.PHIL.(OXON.), Professor of History, Massey University of Manawatu.

  • Whitaker Papers (MSS), Auckland Museum Library
  • Sir George Grey, Rutherford, J. (1961).


William Hosking Oliver, M.A.(N.Z.), D.PHIL.(OXON.), Professor of History, Massey University of Manawatu.